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Sunday, November 28, 2010

"Just Another Step in Life"

           Much more material has been written discussing men’s, compared to women’s, experiences of retirement.  For a long time, particularly in my generation, it was assumed that only men retired while women stayed home and took care of domestic life. We are now facing some dramatic changes.
           More recent research indicates that professional women, like many men, feel like they are sacrificing their professional identity and when they retire are sad about their loss of professional challenges.  And there are some consequences that are more specific to women. For instance they are more likely to have less economic stability due to earning lower salaries and moving in and out of the workforce; most frequently to take care of family matters.
         All things considered, most women retirees see their retirement as “just another step in life” similar to other life transitions they have experienced.  The research on this topic, reported in this blog entry, has been carried out qualitatively.  One woman reported: “ 
         “For me retirement was not difficult. Someone asked me if I missed it.  I said “for about 30 minutes”. I remember going to pack up my stuff and I told the girls in the office I would be back in Monday but I knew all the time that I would not because I didn’t want any tears around me and so I went on myself, over that weekend and vacated the office.  I was sad too, in a way, because you know, it’s a kind of defining moment in your life when you move out of what has been your life’s work”
         Retired women, like men, also face a society fraught with ageist stereotypes.  Another retired woman said:

         “You get a awful lot of reference to age.  I mean, that’s what you get after you’ve retired. Whether it’s your physician making a reference to your age or it’s someone that’s meeting you and saying to you ‘At your age you…. you’re doing this? At your age!’  What does age have to do with it?”

1. Much of the information cited in this blog entry was taken from Christine Price’s. article Women and retirement: Relinquishing Professional Identity.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Controlling Our Lives

Researchers have discovered that among life’s pressures, one of the dominant ones is our fear of losing control over our lives.  This may lead to deterioration of our coping strategies and contributes to the reduction of our sense of self-esteem and self-concepts.  A lot of seniors react by excessive alcohol consumption and substance abuse, particularly prescriptions and over-the-counter medications.  Some specific areas influencing our behavior are how we will cope with large amounts of unstructured time following retirement and loneliness from lack of friends due to their death or moving away from each other.
 Many older women who have not engaged in paid labor outside of home and have spent most of their life in domestic activities, when asked about the their current life after child rearing, often talk about their children or grandchildren and ignore their own life activities.
 But each stage of life has alternatives. Erick Erickson, an outstanding developmental psychologist, viewed the last stage of life as one of Integrity Versus Despair.  With integrity an individual views his or her whole of life with relative satisfaction and contentment. The quality that emerges from a positive resolution of life’s activities is wisdom.
 A summary of despair thoughts is expressed in the following statements:
1. Life has passed me by.
2. If only I hadn’t remained in that job so long.
3. Why didn’t I travel?
4. Why didn’t I try something new?
5. Why me?
6. What did it all mean?

Along with the above statements may be some irrational beliefs such as:
1.   I’m too old to change.
2.   I am too old to learn anything new?
3.   I must inevitably suffer because of my reduced mobility and/or health status.
4.   Now that I am old, I have no control over my life
5.   I am a worthwhile person only insofar as I can hold down a job.  Since I am retired, I am worthless.
6.   I am too old to get married
7.   If I am dependent on others, I am a worthless person.
8.   I am no longer capable of decision-making.
9.   Senility is inevitable
10.    Since I am old I should no longer have a sex drive. If I do have  one something is wrong with me.
11.    If I do end up in a nursing home, that would be unbearable.
12.    Even though I am older, I should be able to do everything I could do when I was twenty, and it is horrible if I cannot,

On The Other Hand we are just as likely to develop Wisdom
Wisdom can be seen as the understanding of life relationships and their development over time. It leads to greater understanding about the differences in values and life goals and knowledge about the relative uncertainty of life and its management.
The following questions may be seen as a contrast to the beliefs and comments illustrating despair:

1.   What brings me happiness?
2.   How have I overcome anxiety in my life?  Would it work now?
3.   When do I do my best work?
4.   What advice would I give to others to help them achieve success?
5.   Do I see myself as a creative person?  If so how do I express my creativity?
6.   What do I think is the best way to resolve conflicts?
7.   What has made my marriage successful?
8.   What advice would I give parents who are still raising children?


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Creating Social Portfolio

       Prior to retirement many of us begin planning for our financial needs by the creation of a financial portfolio. But we often don’t pay as much attention to our level of physical activity and our social needs. This happens in spite of the fact that our health, both physical and mental, is strengthened by our connectedness with others and our willingness to stay active.  When we pull back and isolate ourselves, it may be a sign of approaching illness.
        There may be some barriers to developing new relationships or maintaining those that we have had for a long time. We might lack transportation opportunities, like driving a car or we may move to a distant place where we don’t know anyone.  People who live in the city sometimes move to rural regions and vice versa. Making friends in the new region may be more difficult.
       Maintaining as well as developing new relationships may be facilitated by the creation of a social portfolio.  For example returning to school as an adult student, where we can explore our options, expose ourselves to new ideas and have new adventures is a metaphor for the creation of a social portfolio.  Engaging in this type of activity can help us to create a plan for our community engagement.
       A social portfolio is similar to a financial portfolio.  Both of them encourage us express the diversity of our activities and to not “put all of your eggs in one basket.” While that might seem obvious when we are considering our finances, it is less understood at social and physical activity level.
        Our social portfolios should include “sound activities, mental challenges, and interpersonal relationships that can be carried into old age.” We also need to remain physically active when we are alone and when we’re with others. 
        What do you enjoy doing while you are alone? I read both nonfiction and fiction, which is mostly solitary with low-level activity. I use my laptop at least 2 or 3 hours a day. For me, computer use can be both solitary and social. I do research and construct these blog entries alone but I also communicate directly with others through e-mail and Facebook. I ride my bike whenever possible which is solitary but highly active.
        On the social side of things, I’m still teaching part time.  I am also on the Board of the Local Senior’s Centre. I participate in Board Meetings and committee work both of which are highly active.  I ride my bike whenever possible which is solitary and highly active.
          Gene Cohen encourages us to create a balance within our social portfolio.  Some people are very physically active but almost always alone.  Others are almost always doing something with others but are sedentary.
If you are interested in this idea, google social portfolio. There is quite a bit of material available on the internet. 
.   1. The main ideas for this blog entry were taken from The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain by Dr. Gene Cohen

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Retirement and Depression

          Betty Freidan in her excellent book The Fountain of Age (published in 1993) indicates that depression can be a natural response to the loss of power and purpose. Losing one’s sense of these characteristics is often associated with retirement
         Simone de Beauvoir was a French existentialist philosopher who died in 1986.  One of her many books focuses on The Coming of Age (published in 1972.)  Most of the key ideas in this post are taken from that book. She comments that many gerontologists agree that being without work and having feelings of uselessness during the last twenty years of one's life is psychologically and sociologically very difficult. She suggests that retirees have two requirements, to rest and to live decently. Living in poverty, especially under current economic conditions, raises the question of how many of us will have the resources to rest and live decently and therefore may become vulnerable to depression.
         Gradual retirement, sometimes called bridge retirement, is better than a “sudden chop.” I can personally confirm this. Since I began my struggle against mandatory retirement 5 years ago I have been teaching only two classes. It effects my paycheck and pension contributions but it is a lot more comfortable than teaching a full load of four courses. I am, however, somewhat concerned with my likelihood of living decently after I retire.
         In summary, retirement as a radical break cutting us off from our past, may force us to adapt to a new status that on the negative side, can lead to “a lasting state of depression” If you are retired or close to retirement the following questions may be useful.

Some Depression Questions

1. Depressed Mood
Do you often feel "sad" or "empty" or may cry frequently.

2. Decreased Interest or Pleasure
Do you have markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, daily activities?

3. Weight Changes
Do you have significant changes in weight when not attempting to   gain or lose weight? (A gain or loss of 5% or more in a month)

4. Sleep Disturbances
Do you have a hard time getting to sleep or sleeping too much?

5. Psychomotor Agitation or Retardation
Do you find yourself either agitated and restless or physically slowed down when you are moving?

6. Fatigue
Do you often feel deep fatigue or a loss of energy?

7. Feelings of Worthlessness or Guilt
Do you feel that you have no value or inappropriately guilty about things you have no control over?

8. "Brain Fog"
Do you have a diminished ability to think, concentrate or make decisions?

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Long and How Well Will I Live?

     As I move through life, now at 71 years of age, I am living a comparatively healthy, secure and happy life with a sense of purpose and self-efficacy. Most of the time I experience relatively low levels of stress.  But my father died from a cancer-caused heart attack when he was 71 and I am becoming more conscious of death.
   The search for the fountain of youth has continued for thousands of years. These days we can buy products that minimize our wrinkles and put color back in our gray hair. Or we can take even more extreme steps by having medical treatments to slow down signs of aging. Many people in the medical professions and those doing scientific research focus on aging decline such as social isolation, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.  And, so far, no anti-aging remedy on the market today has been proved effective.
    But not everyone focuses on the idea of aging decline. There are also concepts and research projects such as Successful Aging in which emphasis is placed on developing wisdom and healthy life practices. Two very readable books discussing the positive side of aging are The Healthy Aging Brain by Louis Cozolino and The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of The Aging Brain by Gene Cohen. While these individuals shine a brighter light on the aging process they accept death as the final step of life.
      Underlying the fear of aging is the fear of dying and I am not sitting on some kind of pedestal, ignoring my own worries. While I am not a religious person, I can see that one of the major benefits of going to church and having religious values is the promise of eternal life. The concept is somewhat complicated by the fact that different religions believe in different social forms of eternity. 
      While the books mentioned above and the general concepts of Successful Aging are very useful they don’t moderate my interest in living forever.  There are, of course, some possible downsides. For instance I ask myself:
1.  Would I like to live forever if at some point I’m the only person left?
2.  Would I like to live forever if I wasn’t healthy?
3.  Would I like to live forever if I were living on the Moon or Mars?
      Perhaps it’s a bit too much to ask to not only live forever but also choose what kind of environment I would like to live in.  Scientists predict that even the Universe will only last for several billion years.  What would I do after that?

Thursday, November 11, 2010


         For the last forty years or so I have been attached to the role of university professor.  If I am what I do, when I retire, who will I be?  Where will I fit in?  Will I have to learn how to be a “retired” university professor or will I give up the role completely?  Will I know anymore then than I do now about who I am?
         According to Eckhart Tolle I am not “really” a professor, it is just a role I play as if life is nothing more than a giant 3D movie.  If this is so, then what do I need to know to play the role of “retired professor” Well, lets see.  I’m creating workshops to take out into the “community”; one of them is about living successfully in retirement. That’s a little bit like teaching people how to ride a bicycle and never having ridden one myself. (I do have a bike and I love riding it!) 
         Or, I could drop “roles” entirely; just be “myself”.  Tolle recommends that I give up defining myself to myself or to others. To do this I need to develop the skill of staying in the “here” and “now.”  Eckhart suggests, “True self-esteem and true humility arise out of that activity. 
         He says that if we are really good at our work we can be “completely or largely free of our ego”.  The ego is what gets us into troubles of attachment. For me this involves the fact that this fall and next spring, the last two terms I will be teaching, I am being “evaluated.” I’ve been evaluated before. No big deal.  Except that my ego is worried that perhaps I am not doing a good enough job. 
         Alfred Adler, one of my psychology heroes, argued that we, our egos, strive for perfection and that one of the things driving us is a “feeling of inferiority.”  If I’m, (my ego) so good, why aren’t I teaching at Harvard? Recently, I saw a video of a Harvard professor lecturing. He was dressed in a sport coat and tie. I decided dress like that for the rest for my teaching career.  This is my “Harvard” Harvard outfit.  Albert Einstein is my person of high admiration.  I know I’m not as smart as he was but I can dream
         Back to the issue of retirement, I think the important thing is to pay attention to my attachments as they try to drag me away from the here and now.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Recently it was reported by researchers in a longitudinal study which began over 30 years ago, that persons in midlife who have positive attitudes toward aging live an average of seven and a half years longer than those who are negative about their aging selves.  The findings are independent of gender, age, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health. 
       Some people are relatively complacent about the “elderly” dying at seventy or seventy-five. They appear to assume that lives beyond retirement, unlike earlier life, are all the same and boring. Considering that there appears to be an ongoing fear and prejudice about the effects of an aging population reflected in “apocalyptic demography” or “age blaming”, I thought it would be important to take a deeper look at some ageist notions about the consequences of aging.[1]
       Much of the literature about aging focuses on the assumption that it means inevitable decline.  Specifically that; “…old age, not age, renders man ugly and useless.  This is specifically expressed in the connotation of the term “elderly.”
       In my ageism research, conducted several years ago in British Columbia, out of over 800 senior citizens, 34% reported that they had been told that they were “to old” to do something.  Forty percent reported that a doctor or nurse, without investigating, assumed their ailments were caused by age.
       It’s hard to maintain a positive sense of oneself if we are exposed to ageist comments from friends, family, medical specialists and the government especially if we ourselves believe negative stereotypes.  If we value life and want to live, as long as possible we must do what we can to fight these ageist attitudes of old age and keep positive attitudes.

[1] Much of this material was adapted from: Ageism: Rethinking Ageing by Dr. Bill Bytheway

Friday, November 5, 2010


I think about the personal effects of my nearing retirement from both positive and negative perspectives. This is interesting to me because for the last five years I have only been working part time, mostly teaching two, or sometimes three, courses. 
On the positive side, in retirement, I will have more time to do what I like, for example marketing my memory, wisdom and retirement workshops to the wider society, further developing the Intergenerational Centre for Action Learning (ICAL) which is our nonprofit and Community Building: Research and Action. I am specifically directing my retirement workshop toward the business community as a means of supplementing my retirement pension.  If you know any organizations that might be interested in sponsoring my workshop, let me know.
When mandatory retirement was abolished in British Columbia two years ago, I had been teaching part time for several years and I gave little thought to requesting a return to four courses per semester. Professionally, I have had more time to explore research topics including ageism and retirement.  I am, however, not entirely free from schedules.  For instance this fall term I teach two mornings a week and on another day, early evening. Still, I have four days that I can experience any way I choose. Frankly, I don’t think I would have been able to take the time to create and maintain this blog if I had been teaching a regular four-course schedule. 
Even when working fulltime, teaching at the post secondary level is, for me, more like being an independent contractor. Aside from department meetings and committee activities it is largely individual.  Most of the time it’s my students and me interacting with for several hours.  I enjoy the interaction and I hope most of them do. I know that, when I retire, I will miss regular contact with students and other academic friends.  There is no doubt that I am deeply identified with my job. But I am still looking forward to retiring because what I am creating in the workshops is quite similar
Not teaching four courses for the last five years has had financial consequences. My pension will not be as strong and I am concerned about upcoming expenses.  Perhaps if I had disliked my work I would have paid more attention to financial issues. As it is, the administration deposits my pay at a local bank and I don’t really keep track of how much is in my account.  
Fortunately, along with taking three courses per term in Fine Arts, Elizabeth exercises the role of financial officer in the family.  She knows what’s happening on the financial front and is preparing to re-enter the workforce if necessary. In some ways, I’ve been like a little kid playing in the sandbox with limited appreciation of things going on in the “real” world so retirement will truly be a new beginning for me.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Aging and Coping With Stress

As we age we encounter a great variety of personal conditions.  For instance, I have been married twice, had several different jobs, and moved from the United States to Canada and then from Ontario to BC. Now I’m about ready to experience the next major event: retirement. Throughout my life I have struggled to make sense out of what happens to me.  My retirement is certainly a new challenge.
One aspect of the traditional notion of retirement is that we will have more personal time than ever before to take stock of our lives. The results, of our self/situational evaluations will depend in part on whether we are basically optimistic or pessimistic. I tend to see myself as personally optimistic and socially pessimistic. I have had many personal challenges and in most cases, when things settle down, the results are positive. But on the broader scale I can’t help thinking that current “society” is in a state of decline.

As we age we are more likely to confront illness and, eventually, death with accompanying stress. Some other factors connected with stressful experience are, marital status, health, social activity, plus housing changes in physical environment and now, for me, retirement.

It’s not just our genes that determine our life span. It’s also aspects of culture, lifestyle, and relationships that moderate stress. Laughter helps us cope with stress by reducing the cortisol flowing through our brains, especially to our hippocampus which helps us remember things and figure out what to do next. Humor works best when we are around others in positive social relationships.  Physical contact with pets also helps us reduce stress. I really enjoy it when Ella, our cat, jumps up in my lap and starts purring. Being around friends also decreases the production of stress hormones.  But we can’t just push stress experiences away. Avoidance as a method of coping with whatever type of stress doesn’t seem to work very well.

Research suggests that as older people, when dealing with stress, we tend to, find alternatives to previous patterns of social participation, seek new associations, and look at the situation with some degree of philosophical detachment. In general we put less effort into the coping processes.  This seems to me to be a reflection of wisdom.  What do you think?